Smith Memorial Collection at the University of Pennsylvania

National Historic Chemical Landmark

Dedicated March 16, 2000, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Commemorative Booklet (PDF)

Any serious student of the history of chemistry in America will eventually seek out the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, one of the foremost international historical collections of chemistry books and manuscripts. The core of the collection is the personal library of Edgar Fahs Smith (1854-1928), who, during his long career as professor of chemistry and later provost at the University of Pennsylvania, was a collector of chemistry books and manuscripts. Smith is rightly credited, perhaps more than any other person, as a pioneer in the study of the history and culture of chemistry in the United States during the early decades of the twentieth century.


Edgar Fahs Smith and the History of Chemistry

Throughout his long and active career Smith cultivated a deep interest in the history of his discipline and inculcated this perspective in his students through his teaching and prolific writing in the field. An ardent bibliophile, Smith collected books, manuscripts, portraits, autographed letters, and memorabilia of famous chemists for use in his classes and for research.

Today's chemists, working in a highly specialized and frenetic world, may find Smith's devotion to studying the history of chemistry a curious affectation. The explanation for his sustained interest lies in the values that Smith and other chemists of his generation brought to their work. These values sprang from their shared experiences in American colleges and German universities in the late-nineteenth century. Edgar Fahs Smith and many other aspiring scientists of his time completed their doctoral training at the University of Göttingen. Their time in German laboratories gave them a new vision of scholarly research, programs for institution building, and a commitment to the moral and cultural value of university study that permeated German academe. Smith and his colleagues, Theodore W. Richards at Harvard, Charles F. Chandler at Columbia, and Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins, played leading roles in the transformation of American academic life at the turn of the century. They were comfortable with the production of new Ph.D.s and the publication of research, yet still sensed that graduate study in chemistry in the United States was thought to lack the moral value of studies in the traditional liberal arts.

To combat this idea, Edgar Fahs Smith used "historical chemistry," as he called it, to remind new chemists of the humanistic side of their endeavor and to counter a view of scientists in American universities as industrial technicians. Thus, his avocational interest complemented his professional role. Smith expressed these sentiments in his last book, Old Chemistries (New York, 1927):

“The criticism that chemistry is absolutely commercialized is frequently heard and, further, that it is the commercial value of the science alone which claims the thought of chemists. Such views are widely prevalent. But other ideas exist, and chemistry teachers especially know that to them the discarded 'old chemistries' bring many other messages: messages in history, philosophy, economics, social relations, art, international relations, literature, and in a wide and extensive culture.”

His collection of classic texts, images and related material was stored in his office in the Harrison Laboratory. This attractive and comfortable room was filled to overflowing with antique furniture, portraits of chemists and other memorabilia, and was, in the words of a contemporary, "...a perfect expression of his own ideals."

Following Smith's death his library was given to the University of Pennsylvania with an endowment through the generosity of his widow. It reopened as the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry (Smith Memorial Collection) on March 1, 1931.

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“The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry” commemorative booklet
“The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry” commemorative booklet produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2000 (PDF).

Contents of the Smith Memorial Collection

The Smith Memorial Collection has few peers in the wide range of chemistry-related works it holds. Over the years, the collection has grown from the approximately 3,000 printed volumes and 600 manuscripts that constituted Smith's original library, to the 15,000 books, manuscripts and pamphlets it holds today. It also includes an important collection of nearly 4,000 photographs and engravings of scientists, alchemists, chemical apparatus, and laboratories, of which 1,800 were collected by Smith himself. Finally, there are several examples of original chemical apparatus that Smith collected over the years. The collection has grown substantially in the past seven decades, thanks to the dedication of its first curator, Eva Armstrong, and to the efforts of her successors, but it retains the imprint of the man who began the collection, Edgar Fahs Smith.

The highlights below illustrate some of its notable strengths and give a sense of its breadth and depth of coverage of chemistry and its allied sciences and technologies.

Early Works

Smith assembled a great deal of material relating to alchemy and Renaissance alchemists. He collected many alchemical manuscripts, including an English translation of Alexander von Suchten's De secretis antimonii, which purportedly contains annotations in the hand of an early American alchemist, John Winthrop, Jr., the first colonial Governor of Connecticut. Among the printed alchemical works is a copy of Elias Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652), presented to Smith by friends at Columbia University. The item was originally owned by Sir Isaac Newton and contains his autograph notes.

The collection has representatives of early pharmacology, including many works, both printed and manuscript, of receipts (recipes) for various medical ailments. One German manuscript, written in 1683, is a pharmacopoeia, or medical miscellany, containing remedies and treatments for various diseases, probably copied into a single volume for the use of an early physician.

The works of both Robert Boyle (1626-1691) and Joseph Priestley (1743-1794) are well represented in the Smith Collection, with the Boyle imprints comprising the most comprehensive collection in North America. Boyle, among whose works was The Sceptical Chymist (1661), is perhaps best known for his experiments with early air pumps, which led to the eponymous Boyle's Law, an expression of the inverse relationship between the pressure and the volume of air.

Priestley, best remembered for the discovery of oxygen (which he knew as "dephlogisticated air"), was sympathetic to the French Revolution, and these sympathies forced him to leave his home in Birmingham, England. Eventually he went into exile in America, where he continued his work, "giv[ing] inspiration and impetus to a host of young Americans to press forward in chemistry." Among the Priestley manuscripts in the Smith Collection are letters written by him to the National Assembly of France accepting citizenship but declining the invitation to join the Assembly. A copy of the law conferring French citizenship upon Priestley and others can be found with the printed Priestley materials.

Practical Application of Chemistry

The practical application of chemistry is represented by numerous texts on topics such as soap making and dyes, perfumes, and cosmetics. Works on the production of beer, wine, and liquors also abound, including the German translation of Hieronymus Brunschwig's Kleines Distillierbuch (1500), William Y-Worth's The Compleat Distiller (1705), and Friedrich Accum's A Treatise on the Art of Brewing (1820).

The collection acquired another dimension with the 1950 acquisition of Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist and explosives expert Tenney L. Davis' library of pyrotechnical literature. However, Smith's colleague, Walter Taggert, was the source of the Venice 1550 edition of Pirotechnia, by Vannoccio Biringucci. First published in 1540, Biringucci's book may well be the earliest printed work to mention the subject. It is also important as one of the first systematic texts on mining and metallurgy, preceding Agricola's more famous De Re Metallica by 16 years.

Science in Early America

The collection is exceptionally rich with print and manuscript resources from early America, when Philadelphia was the center of scientific activity. The first chair of chemistry in North America was established at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1769. Benjamin Rush, a leading American physician and political activist, was the first to hold this chair, serving as professor of chemistry from 1769 to 1789. Manuscript lecture notes, both by Rush and by some of his students, can be found in the collection. Although it disbanded between 1805 and 1810, the celebrated Chemical Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1792, was very active at the turn of the century. The Smith Collection holds a copy of the society's Annual Oration Delivered Before the Chemical Society of Philadelphia, January 31st, 1801, published in 1802 and reprinted by Smith in his Chemistry in America (1914). Robert Hare's "aqueous sliding rod hydro-oxygen eudiometer," an instrument for measuring and analyzing gases, illustrated and described in Hare's Compendium of the Course of Chemical Instruction in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania (1827), is probably the most important apparatus in the collection.

According to Smith, "one of the most delightful chemical texts which circulated abroad and in America in the first half of the nineteenth century" was Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chymistry. This work was enormously influential in developing interest in chemistry among the young, and more than 160,000 copies were sold in this country before 1853. The Smith Collection holds more than 30 copies printed before 1850, in both London and American editions, including the first American edition of 1806.

The Collection Today

The Smith Collection is an active and growing collection, used by a wide variety of patrons in a multitude of ways. It is a source for conservators restoring old paintings who are interested in the chemical composition of the early paints and varnishes with which they are working, and for brewers, vintners, and distillers who are interested in recovering old recipes and in learning about the history of their crafts. Historians of science find a wealth of material having to do not only with chemistry, but also with physics and alchemy.

New acquisitions of older materials on chemistry and its historical antecedents are made regularly, with funding from the two Smith Collection endowments established through the generous foresight of Smith's widow, Margie Gruel Smith. Among recent additions are Pharmacologia Anti-empirica, or, A Rational Discourse of Remedies both Chymical and Galenical (1683), by Walter Harris; L'Art du Distillateur Liquoriste (1775), by Jacques-Francois Demachy; two eighteenth-century medical manuscripts; and a small cache of books dealing with animal magnetism. The collection is also the beneficiary of gifts of books, manuscripts, and images from myriad donors.

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Smith Memorial Collection

Books of the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, The University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Photos by Keith Lindblom/ACS.

Edgar Fahs Smith (1854-1928)

Edgar Fahs Smith was born in York, Pennsylvania, on May 23, 1854. He graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Gettysburg in 1874. His chemistry professor, Samuel P. Sadtler (who later became a leading industrial consultant and one of Smith's colleagues in the Philadelphia chemical community), encouraged him to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Göttingen. There, in two years, he obtained his Ph.D. under the direction of Friedrich Wöhler, one of the most internationally renowned chemists of the time. Upon his return to the United States he married Margie Alice Gruel, whom he had met while a student at Pennsylvania College. Smith began his teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania, and apart from a short period teaching at Muhlenberg and Wittenberg Colleges, spent his entire career there. He started as an instructor from 1876 to 1881, returning in 1888 as professor of analytical chemistry. He became chairman of the chemistry department in 1892 and reorganized it on the German model of a teaching and research laboratory designed to produce qualified professional chemists. The department's success in research under his direction brought Smith recognition in the chemistry community, including selection as American Chemical Society president in 1895 and election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1898.

During the 1890s Smith began to offer his students at Penn a course of lectures on the history of chemistry, probably among the first such courses offered at an American university. His typed lecture notes, reflecting his view that chemistry's past reveals its rich culture and its humanism, are preserved in the Smith Collection.

A proven administrator, Smith was named vice provost of the university in 1898, then provost (at that time the chief executive officer) in 1911. Over the next decade, he presided over Penn's transformation into a major research institution. Despite his demanding administrative schedule, he still cultivated his long-standing interest in the history of chemistry. Smith's major works in the field—Chemistry in America (1914), The Life of Robert Hare (1917), James Woodhouse (1918), and Priestley in America (1920)—were all completed during his tenure as provost. He also maintained an active public life, serving on the U.S. Assay Commission, and the Electoral College and the Commission for Revision of the Constitution of Pennsylvania. He retired from the university in 1920 and devoted the last eight years of his career to pursuing historical research on American chemistry and advancing its cause. Twice again president of the American Chemical Society—in 1921 and 1922—he was instrumental in founding the society's Divisions of Chemical Education and of the History of Chemistry. Through his collecting, his institutional activities, and his publications, Edgar Fahs Smith helped to compile the history of chemistry in the United States. He died in Philadelphia on May 3, 1928.

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Further Reading

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Portrait of Edgar Fahs Smith.
Courtesy The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, The University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

Landmark Designation and Acknowledgments

Landmark Designation

The American Chemical Society designated the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 16, 2000. The plaque commemorating the event reads:

The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry is one of the oldest, most diverse, and most significant collections of chemistry books, manuscripts, and images in the United States. During more than 40 years at the University of Pennsylvania, Edgar Fahs Smith (1854-1928) shared his great interest in the culture and history of chemistry through teaching, lecturing, and writing. The collection began as Smith's personal library and at his death consisted of some 3,000 printed volumes, 600 manuscripts, and 1,800 images; since then it has grown to more than 15,000 volumes, 100 linear feet of manuscripts, and 4,000 images. The collection remains an essential resource for historians and chemists alike.


Adapted for the internet from “The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2000.

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Cite this Page

ACS Style:

American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Smith Memorial Collection at the University of Pennsylvania. (accessed Month Day, Year).

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National Historic Chemical Landmark plaque for the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection at The University of Pennsylvania Libraries in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Keith Lindblom/ACS.